- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010


By Gene Hirshhorn LaPere

Vantage, $26.95, 270 pages


Joseph H. Hirshhorn, “a five-foot-four-inch supercharged dynamo, streaked across the twin worlds of Canadian mining and art collecting like a comet with a vapor that illuminated people.” He was a remarkable man with a remarkable obsession - collecting great art - inspired from the time he noticed the way art “brightened up the ugly green walls” of the bedroom he shared with his brothers. The “art” in question was a calendar with reproductions of romantic paintings of the Barbizon School, “pictures of a world, places and people all new” to him.

“Little Man in a Big Hurry” is Hirshhorn’s story, told with both admiration and bitterness by his daughter, Gene LaPere, of how his obsession became the nation’s treasure. Mrs. LaPere’s writing lacks finesse; at times her style is awkward and repetitive, but the story makes fascinating reading.

Joe was born Joseph Hirschhorn in a small Latvian shtetl on Aug. 11, 1899, the 12th of 13 children. His father died a year after his birth. Poverty and the political upheaval of pre-revolutionary Russia drove the family to immigrate to “the poor streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn before Hirshhorn had turned eight.” Somewhere along the line, he dropped the “c” in his last name and added a middle initial. He grew up shrewd and suspicious, never taking anything at face value.

As a teenager, he was fascinated by the glamour of Wall Street and fell in love with the financial world. “He was open to everything, every new thought,” Mrs. LaPere writes. His ambition was to make money. His personal charm, eagerness to learn and attention to the experience of successful brokers and traders carried him a long way. He began playing the market at age 16 and soon started trading successfully on his own. Just before the market collapsed in October 1929, Joe, “smarter or luckier than most,” sold his holdings for $4 million.

In 1933, he turned his financial eye on gold mining in Canada. Although gold brought him substantial wealth, the greatest source of his fortune was not in gold, but in Canadian uranium. Mrs. LaPere’s account of how her father went about finding the uranium, anonymously buying up all possible claims and finally setting up his mine, is the most exciting part of her biography. It reads almost like a mystery story. All of Hirshhorn’s acumen, energy and know-how blossomed in his quest, and he made a fortune, the fortune with which he purchased the artwork ultimately bequeathed to the United States.

Hirshhorn purchased his first work of art as a teenager when he happened upon two Albrecht Durer etchings in the window of a New York gallery. He bargained the price down to $70 each. Although they later turned out to be either fakes or copies, Joe kept the etchings and stipulated in his will that they be buried with him upon his death. They were.

It wasn’t until after the crash of 1929 that Hirshhorn began to invest seriously in art. Prices were low, and he had money. His first purchases were of the French Romantic artists who reminded him of the reproductions on the calendar of his childhood, but he soon found an affinity with contemporary art. He befriended dealers and artists and relied on experts in the field for advice. He found contemporary art “stimulating and pulsating with life.”

When asked to explain his method in choosing which paintings to buy, Hirshhorn replied, “I can tell you the way I buy. I can’t tell you why I buy. I buy if I get a gut feeling. It starts with the head, then the gut, and the heart. I want to choose everything in life that way.”

His modus operandi was always the same: to buy paintings in bulk for the least amount of money, bargaining down the prices from dealers and artists alike. The older he grew, the more he bought, often making dozens of purchases daily. By 1959, he had acquired 12,000 pieces of art.

How the Smithsonian Institution finally acquired the Hirshhorn collection and built the donut-shaped museum to house it is another fascinating part of the book. There were offers from abroad, but Hirshhorn wanted the collection to remain in the United States. After years of negotiations and delays, and pursuant to the requisite act of Congress, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden finally opened on the Mall in Washington on Oct. 1, 1974.

Hirshhorn was a complex man, short in stature but large in ambition. He could be very generous to his friends, less so to his family, with the exception of his beloved mother, Amelia. His children he ignored, often expressing disdain or even cruelty. Mrs. LaPere points out that “the battery of attributes that made Joe such a success in business took a destructive turn when applied to his spouses or his parenting. One of Joe’s daughters called him a ‘monster.’ One of his wives … likened him to Hitler. Another observed him to be greedy and so much in need of love that ‘he even tried to charm the man at the toll booth on the parkway.’ ”

Hirshhorn liked only pretty women. Women, in turn, found him attractive. He was married four times. His first wife, Jennie Berman, was a childhood sweetheart. Jennie had good taste and was a model wife and mother to their three daughters and one son. But Joe’s philandering and his long absences in Canada destroyed the marriage.

Joe’s second wife, Lily Harmon, was a painter. They adopted two little girls. Again. his philandering brought about a divorce. The third marriage, to Brenda Hawley Heide, was short-lived. Brenda bored Joe, so they separated.

His fourth and last wife, Olga Cunningham, was petite and pretty, with a good sense of humor. She helped catalog the collection and was with him in the last years of his life, when he enjoyed the notoriety brought by his financial success and art collection.

Hirshhorn died on Aug. 31, 1981. His is a genuine tale of the American dream: Penniless immigrant boy becomes a self - educated millionaire and collector. His legacy is the art he left to all of us.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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